One morning a social worker stopped by her hospital room. They began a conversation that would be inconceivable to most teenagers: If death approached and AshLeigh could no longer speak, what would she want those who surrounded her to know?
The social worker showed AshLeigh a new planning guide designed to help critically ill young patients express their preferences for their final days — and afterward.
If visitors arrived when AshLeigh was asleep, did she want to be woken? If they started crying, should they step outside or talk about their feelings with her?
What about life support? Funeral details? Who should inherit her computer? Or Bandit, her dachshund?
AshLeigh grabbed her blue and hot-pink pens, and began scribbling furiously.
When she died in July, she was at home as she had requested. Per her instructions, she was laid out for the funeral in her favorite jeans, cowgirl boots and the white shirt she had gotten for Christmas. Later, the family dined, as AshLeigh had directed, on steak fajitas and corn on the cob.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I’d had to make these decisions during our extreme grief,” said her mother, Ronda McHale. “But she did it all for me. Even though she got to where she couldn’t speak, AshLeigh had her say.”
A national push to have end-of-life discussions before a patient is too sick to participate has focused largely on older adults. When patients are under 18 and do not have legal decision-making authority, doctors have traditionally asked anguished parents to make advanced-care choices on their behalf.
More recently, providers have begun approaching teenagers and young adults directly, giving them a voice in these difficult decisions, though parents retain legal authority for underage patients.
“Adolescents are competent enough to discuss their end-of-life preferences,” said Pamela S. Hinds, a contributor on pediatrics for “Dying in America,” a 2014 report by the nonprofit Institute of Medicine. “Studies show they prefer to be involved and have not been harmed by any such involvement.”
There are no firm estimates of the number of young patients facing life-threatening diseases at any given time. Cancer, heart disease and congenital deformities together account for an estimated 11 percent of deaths among adolescents, about 1,700 per year. And many thousands live with the uncertainty of grave illness.
“If you are one of the children for whom this matters, or one of their parents, this is a huge opportunity,” Dr. Chris Feudtner, a pediatric palliative care physician and ethicist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said of these conversations.
But shifting from hushed talks with parents to conversations that include young patients has met some resistance. Many doctors lack training about how to raise these topics with teenagers. Until recently, most clinical teams believed that adolescents would not understand the implications of end-of-life planning and that they might be psychologically harmed by such talk.
Sometimes when providers do make the attempt, parents or patients may abruptly change the subject, fearful that by joining in, they are signaling that they have abandoned hope.
Yet research shows that avoiding these talks exacerbates the teenage patient’s fear and sense of isolation. In a 2012 survey examining end-of-life attitudes among adolescent patients with H.I.V., 56 percent said that not being able to discuss their preferences was “a fate worse than death.” In a 2013 study, adolescents and parents described such directed family talks as emotionally healing.
Teenage patients can guide, even lead, their medical care, Dr. Feudtner said. But more important, including them in the discussions acknowledges a terrible fact that patient and family members struggle to keep from each other: the likelihood of death.
“Then people can be together, as opposed to alone,” Dr. Feudtner said. The teenage patient feels free to address intimate topics, including “the scariest aspects of the human condition — mortality and pain — but also love, friendship and connection.”
Creating a Legacy
Karly Koch, a college student from Muncie, Ind., has been treated for many serious illnesses, including Stage 4 lymphoma, all related to a rare genetic immune disorder. Her older sister, Kelsey, died of the condition at 22.
Last spring, Karly, then 19, developed congestive heart failure. Her renal arteries were 90 percent blocked. As Karly lay in intensive care at the National Institutes of Health, a psychotherapist who had worked with the family for years approached her mother, Tammy, with the new planning guide.
“Do we talk about dying?” Mrs. Koch recalled wondering. “Maybe Karly hasn’t thought about it — do we put it in her head?”
“We had already buried a child and had to guess what she wanted,” she continued. “So we wanted Karly to have a voice.”
Karly’s reaction? “She said it wasn’t like we were telling her something she didn’t already know,” Mrs. Koch said.
The guide used by Karly Koch and AshLeigh McHale is called “Voicing My Choices.” While there are end-of-life workbooks for young children and their parents, as well as planning guides for older adults, this is the first guide created for — and largely by — adolescent and young adult patients.
The intention was to create a way for them “to make choices about what nurtures, protects and affirms their remaining life and how they wish to be remembered,” said Lori Wiener, a social worker and principal investigator on the research that led to the planning guide.
In the two years since its introduction, more than 20,000 copies have been ordered by families and more than 70 medical centers from Aging With Dignity, the nonprofit that publishes it. “Voicing My Choices” has also been translated into Spanish, Italian, French and Slovak.
In straightforward language, the guide offers young patients check boxes for medical decisions like pain management. Another section asks about comfort. Favorite foods? Music? When visitors arrive, one option could be: “Please dress me, comb my hair and do whatever else is needed to help make me look like myself.”
What gives you strength or joy, the guide asks. What do you wish to be forgiven for? And who do you wish to forgive?
“These are the things that are important to know about me,” one list begins. AshLeigh, who would dance and sing down the aisles of Walmart, wrote: “Fun-loving, courageous, smart, pretty wild and crazy.”
Devastating disease can leave anyone feeling powerless, so a means to assert some control can be therapeutic. For adolescents, who are exploring and defining identity, Dr. Feudtner said, “you can express who you are, what you are and what you care about.”
By offering young patients opportunities to write farewell letters, donate their bodies to research and create rituals for remembering them, the planning guide allays one of their greatest fears: that they are too young to leave a meaningful legacy.
And so the ability to do it can galvanize them. Lauren Weller Sidorowicz received a diagnosis of metastatic bone cancer at age 18. Determined and outspoken, she joined a focus group of young patients at the N.I.H. whose opinions led to the creation of the planning guide. Days before she died in 2011 at age 26, Ms. Sidorowicz paged Dr. Wiener, frantic to include a final thought in a farewell letter.
To her grandmother, she wrote, “I hope there is potato salad in Heaven as good as yours.”
There are no standards for when and how to introduce a critically ill teenager to end-of-life planning; there are only intuition and experience. Many pediatric cancers have favorable prognoses, Dr. Feudtner said, and raising the topic prematurely may provoke anxiety and fear.
More often, though, doctors postpone the discussion too long, until the patient is too sick to take part. Dr. Maryland Pao, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health who helped design the guide, recalled the despair of a mother whose dying son could no longer speak.
“I have no idea what he wants,” the woman told her. “He’s 17, but we never communicated about this.”
Dr. Wiener believes preparation should be done soon after diagnosis, but when the patient is stable. Exploratory talks, she said, become steppingstones, each readying the patient for the next one.
Still, providers encounter problems. “If the family doesn’t want to do it, you’re stuck,” Dr. Pao said. “There’s a lot of magical thinking — that if you talk about it, you’ll help them die.”
And sometimes teenagers themselves put up obstacles to having frank family discussions. Some young patients, for example, did not want Dr. Pao to tell their parents that they were ready to stop treatment. Rather than say as much to their heartbroken relatives, some will pour out their feelings on social media.
Erin Boyle, 25, had been treated for autoimmune disorders since she was 4. Last August, as she prepared for a stem cell transplant for leukemia, N.I.H. researchers asked whether she felt comfortable looking through “Voicing My Choices.”
Ms. Boyle completed most of the guide. At that time, she recalled, “the decisions felt theoretical rather than imminent.”
But shortly after the transplant, she relapsed.
“It was comforting to get my wishes down on paper and free myself to live without worrying about the details of dying,” she said recently.
She died on Wednesday. Her body is going to the N.I.H. for a research autopsy, as she wished, her mother, Ellen, said.
For doctors, end-of-life discussions with adolescent patients can be wrenching. “You have to be self-aware and reflect on your own experiences with grief and loss,” Dr. Pao said. “It’s hard not to be anxious if you have children. You feel helpless. It makes you face your own mortality.”
On July 25, Karly Koch had an experimental bone marrow transplant. Her family calls that date her “re-birthday.” With 12 medications a day and a surgical mask, she is out and about in Muncie.
Karly takes classes to become a physical therapy assistant. She is a youth leader at her church, where her boyfriend is also a member. She delights in “normal people” activities.
Her parents keep Karly’s copy of “Voicing My Choices” in their bedroom cabinet. “It isn’t gloomy to go through,” Karly said. “It’s kind of fun to get your feelings out there.”
“Now, looking at it,” she continued, “I think I’d like to add some things.”
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